Universities Are Woefully Underprepared to Handle the Mental Health of Their Students

October 27th 2014

Adam Rotstein

It turns out sexual assault is not the only emotionally sensitive issue colleges are handling questionably these days. As a growing number of students make use of their campus mental health resources, few schools have allotted more money to hiring additional counselors. Even more troubling is the way some universities are extricating themselves altogether from mental health problems on campus. It seems like many administrations want the students struggling with mental illness to be someone else’s problem. 

According to the American College Health Association's most recent annual national survey, 30 percent of college students reported feeling "so depressed that it was difficult to function" at some time over the past year. What’s worse--88% of schools said the increases in demands of clients with “more serious psychological problems” had “posed staffing problems.” What’s a school to do?

The response of many schools has been to outsource the issue. Instead of hiring more counselors, some administrations have set up a cold sort-of hierarchical approach to angst and emergencies. Take Audrey D. Blanche, for example, a student from Northwestern University who was hospitalized for sexual assault related post-traumatic stress. Blanche was turned away from the Counseling center at Northwestern because it was “completely booked, unless she was suicidal.” This kind of basic, insensitive policy treats distressed students like potentially self-destructive ticking time bombs. 

Even when students are able to meet with campus counselors, it may not always be in their best interest. One student at Yale sought help after she began cutting herself as a symptom of her depression. She explained that it was not a suicide attempt, but was transported to the psychiatric unit of Yale-New Haven hospital, involuntarily. When was released she was told to go home and to apply for readmission at a later point. In her January 2014 column in Yale Daily News, there is a particularly powerful and revealing moment. 

"I’m sorry,” I say. “What makes you think I will be safer away from school, away from my support system?” School was my stimulation, my passion and my reason for getting up in the morning.

“Well the truth is,” he says, “we don’t necessarily think you’ll be safer at home. But we just can’t have you here.”

The motives here are quite clear. Understandably, colleges want to protect themselves from retroactive accusations of negligence. Put frankly, nobody wants a suicide on their record or on their conscience. And while college administrations cannot technically infringe upon the autonomy of a student, they can if they have reason to believe he or she is imminently suicidal. But if a student wishes to continue the semester despite less than ideal mental health, why should the administration put a stop to that?

An article in Newsweek tells the harrowing story of a student at Princeton who made a half hearted suicide attempt and immediately called the health center. After being transported to a nearby hospital, doctors determined he did not intend to inflict any more harm on himself or others. When he tried to return to class (and a semblance of normalcy), he found out he had been evicted from his dorm room and prohibited from attending classes. On his experience with the administration: “These are crafty people. They knew their stuff. They did everything right to get me out of there.”

"Universities often send out mixed messages," said Maggie Bertram, who is the senior program manager with Active Minds. "On one hand, (universities) encourage students to get (mental health) help, but on the other hand (students) get punished for seeking help, and it becomes a barrier for other students."